Behind the dreadlocks: A man with a message

We all look at people and if we are not careful, our first impression is based on appearance.

- Mack Brown, University of Texas football coach.

Brown is an expert. He, after all, is Ricky Williams's coach. Williams is the best college football player in the land this year. But with dreadlocks and earrings, Williams also looks like he's out of some Hollywood weirdo adventure movie.

At first blush, Williams seems to be awash in attitude, fitting right in with too many athletes who spit in the face of conventional standards of fashion, dress, and behavior. Routinely, we have found, such athletes are covering up their failures in one and usually two basic areas of talent and character. We'll do them all a favor and not mention any names.

Ricky Williams looks like what he isn't. He looks like a rebel with a cause but he's not. He looks like a kind of enigmatic 1990s gender amalgamation but he's not. He looks like everything we suspect when we see somebody wearing a baseball hat backward but he's not.

"He wants to be known for who he is," Brown was musing on the phone the other day, "not for how he looks." That's a big hurdle. The problem, says Brown, is that "about 60 percent of what we think about somebody is usually determined within the first 60 seconds of meeting them." That puts a fine point on what we know well: You get one chance to make a first impression.

Bill Little, the longtime sports information director at Texas, says of Williams: "He's not saying, 'Look at me. I'm different.' Rather, he's saying, 'It's OK to be different.' " The distinction is and will be lost on many. Too bad. It's of enormous significance.

He's different, for sure, on the football field. He holds 12 NCAA records and assuming he rushes for 63 yards against Texas A&M today, which he will unless Texas secedes from the union, as it's always threatening to do, he will surpass Tony Dorsett as the game's all-time career rusher. It was more than two decades ago that Dorsett ran for 6,028 yards at the University of Pittsburgh. Williams holds 41 Texas school records.

People who should know better already are comparing Williams to Dorsett, Walter Payton, Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, and all-time Texas great Earl Campbell. Whew.

Still, when the Heisman ballot arrived the other day, voters were reminded to vote for the best three players in order. That's easy: 1. Williams. 2. Williams. 3. Williams. There. Done. The other top players - dreadlocks, earrings, or no - are pretenders, not contenders.

But it is off the field where Williams excels. He is the classic albeit rare example of a young man who believes the proof is in what he does, not what he says. Indeed, watch his dust.

He could have gone to the NFL last year and signed a six-year contract for about $13 million. Instead, he returned to Austin for his senior year because he likes college and he likes college football, even though his team was just 4-7 last season and he'd have to adjust to a new coach. The money won't melt. What a message to send without saying a word.

He's helping his two sisters financially to come to Texas; all three will graduate. What a message. Teammate Chad Patmon says that Williams is the kind of guy "who, if he has $10, he'll give you $8 and he'll get by on $2." What a message.

And he befriended the storied Doak Walker, the 1948 Heisman winner from SMU, who died in September following a skiing accident eight months previous. Williams last year was the recipient of the Walker Award, which goes to the best back in the country. They became terrific but unlikely friends. Walker was white, old, and conservative; Williams is black, young, and different. After the accident, Williams was in touch with the desperately hurt Walker every week. Says Williams quietly, "You want to have people talk about you like they do about Doak." What a message.

And Mack Brown explains, "I tell the players that their hair needs to be cut in line with their future employment." Ricky has future employment and his hair is just fine. In fact, Brown, with 26 years of coaching behind him, says Williams "has taught us all to get past what a person may look like. I don't even notice his hair any more."

* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is

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